“Television is a formidable thinking tool. You are like an analyst to whom society’s subconscious would be offered wide open…” –Serge Daney
Every medium stimulates and meets the sensibility of an audience as well as, impacting its orientation, political and otherwise. Television has been historically associated with distracted cultural consumption, a medium more suited to influence viewers rather than make them think. While the written word allowed for deeper reflections and articulated, complex thoughts, TV had to rely on the superficiality of spectacular images to attract viewers’ attention. Cinema somehow bridges these two realms by constituting an art form that is both entertaining and enlightening.
As the 21st century started rolling, both cinema and the press started experiencing a paradigm-shifting, economic and existential crisis fuelled by the availability of free content on the internet. In the bid to preserve their traction, both cinema and editorial products lowered their standards, capitulating to the cult of celebrity and the plague of gossip. Fearful of alienating shrinking, largely “gate-crashing” audiences, as well as admittedly being unable to finance bolder endeavours, they both opted for blander content.
As tabloids and blockbusters appeared to be the only financially viable forms of infotainment, television, disputing its unsavoury reputation, began offering quality, informative and pay-for entertainment. Audiences, despite what most people seemed to be so sure about, were apparently willing to chip in for challenging cultural products. It is significant in this respect that the creator of one of the first quality TV series, David Simon of “The Wire,” is a former investigative journalist who translated his craft from paper to ether. What had once been the prerogative of investigative journalism became a televisual possibility. Writing, not directing or acting, is the leading skill.
Not that television had never produced high-end series before Tony Soprano decided to confess his insecurities to a psychoanalyst, but the HBO-launched tTV renaissance presents unique features. Quality TV prior to “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” had mainly been the creation of established directors lending their lenses to the now defunct cathode-ray tube (Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” Von Trier’s “The Kingdom,” etc.) There had of course been honourable exceptions, like Patrick McGoohan’s “The Prisoner,” but the new televisual wave featured no big names either in front or behind the camera. At a time when only star value seemed the only bankable asset in the film industry, TV proved the exact contrary, and successfully so. The writer/creator supplanted the director, Hollywood stars made way for ensemble casts mostly composed by relatively unknown actors.
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Choral narratives challenged the individualist aspects of modern life and cinema. Society, as opposed to individuals, took the center stage after 30 years of cultural exile. Reality TV had represented the apex of a television genre and a societal tendency inwardly projected toward the personal dimension of life. A close and morbid relation with the spectator whereby gossip as opposed to current affairs represented our veritable bond with “reality.” A type of televisual show whose very subject was not “the world” but the “I” deprived of any idea(l)s or principles, the terminal stage of the narcissistic process that began in the ’80s. On the ashes of reality shows, the new TV series emerged. Emotionality and impulsive identification, which characterized reality TV, have been challenged by the rational elaboration and discerning understanding that new series require.
At a time of economic and social crisis, critical thought became once again a necessity that American television series managed to articulate where art cinema, with its clearly European ascendant, failed. Crisis and critique, after all, share the same etymological root; crisis can sometimes usher renewals. Not that arthouse cinema hasn’t produced any remarkable film in the past decade, but it certainly lacked the cogency with which TV series relates to the present and its most pressing issues. As art cinema retreated into the solipsistic dimension of privileged lives, TV delved in and reconnected to the public sphere of common concerns. While television had, throughout its history, presented facts as “inevitable” and “neutral,” today’s TV series pierce the surface of reality to expose its inner workings.
A series like “The Wire,” for instance, in clear opposition to the Hollywood morality, explored the socio-economic roots of “evil” to expose the relativity of “good.” By adopting the stylistic conventions of the “cop show,” David Simon subverted its core by dissecting with almost Marxist rigour the structural malfunctions of American society circa the ’00s. “Breaking Bad” took the quintessential protagonist of sit-coms, the middle class American family, and literally dissected it in its every aspect. Money and lack thereof, lies and manipulation are the elements keeping the American family together in post-collapse America. Love, mutual understanding and harmony all belong to a tele-fictional past.
Vince Gilligan’s creation combines noir elements with a mounting, Shakespearian narrative progression embroiled into a crystalline clockwork plot where everything matches and falls into pieces at the same time. A multi-seasonal narrative arch fully exploiting the temporal possibility of serial storytelling supplants the old episodic structure of traditional TV series. Aesthetically, “Breaking Bad” rivals the finest cinematography. From the acid green and sand yellow of the first two seasons to the sun-setting tones of season three. From the blood dark red of season four to the livid blue of the last season, constantly measured against the crystal blue of the purest meth, the cinematography in “Breaking Bad” is an integral part of the narrative.
As far as the debunking of myths and institutions goes, Netflix’s “House of Cards” does an exemplary job in delineating the callous nature of institutional politics. Devoid of any progressive pretence, “House of Cards” details in unnerving details the very dark and cynical matter of political intrigues in the corridors of power. An intention perhaps best exemplified by the series’ very opening sequence, a speeding SUV running over a dog; a rather powerful allegory of the modern rule of democracy. Though entirely fictional, the series strikes as extremely plausible and realistically accurate. One would be hard pressed to find a similar depiction of power on the pages of the national newspapers or in the news.
Equally hard-pressed one would be to see such a nuanced reflection on the ethical implications of capital punishment as the one Sundance Channel’s “Rectify” is delivering. Once again, challenging and surpassing the calculative and mediocre tones of the “public opinion,” “Rectify” unflinchingly stages the cruelty of justice without offering readymade sides to conveniently pick. It probes the darkest depths of institutional vengeance by positing crucial ethical questions before and beyond “innocence.” Quite a leap forward from the Hollywood tales of god versus evil or the lynching mob antics the mainstream press often joins.
Shows like “Homeland” or “The Americans” instead display an uncommon willingness to take a look at the humanity and possible reasons of America’s “enemies.” Quality TV in general seems to be reacting to a changing social and political landscape where blind trust in institutions is dissolving, where more and more families are struggling financially. A situation where the American way of life is no longer granting wealth to the middle classes and a cancer can suddenly undermine the very economic and moral sustainability of a family.
When the distinction between work and leisure blurs, so does the one between entertainment and critical thought. The need to serialize, typical of a consumer-industrial society, is met in the new television series by the need to criticize the very effects of that same society. A global, mass cultural phenomenon like “The Wire” represents one of the harshest indictments of American society and its structural injustices. David Simon himself recently observed on his blog that “We have given our democratic birthright over to capital itself. Capital has succeeded in buying the remnants of democracy at wholesale prices, so that profit can always be maximized and any other societal need or priority can be ignored.”
That such a radical statement comes from the creator of a commercially successful television drama indicates TV as a potential site for critical elaboration. Cinema too can and does do that, with two crucial differences though. Its resonance among audiences cannot be compared with TV any longer (one of last year’s best films, “The Master,” did not even break even at the box office…). And, most interestingly, TV series come without the snobby aura that general audiences associate with art cinema. They in fact collapse the contraposition between creativity and commerce, quality and quantity, spirituality and materialism, knowledge and ignorance that have historically parted “high” from “low” cinema.
Pay TV, unlike traditional broadcasters, does not look for the lowest common denominator but provides instead different products for different niches. So instead of levelling down the public sensibility in order to satisfy the larger viewership possible, pay TV cultivates specificities. The characteristics of a standardized and genre-driven cultural product turned out to be incentives rather than limitations for their creators. Engaging, thought-provoking stories with a commercial soul whose creators conceived by merging authorial ambitions with design, ideas with tools, creativity with repetition. TV, not independent cinema, figures undisputedly show, is what is attracting more and more talent at the moment.
If for decades television had constituted a site of cultural homologation, contemporary TV series possess instead a rather penetrating, if not openly confrontational, edge. The healthy DVD and VOD market share that TV series enjoy is proof that spectators feel the need to return and analyze what they’ve seen already. TV series are similar to books in this respect, something you study in search of new meanings and angles. Thoughtful reflection, amply demonstrated by the amount of discussion TV series generate, calls into question the immediate, neurotic consumption that drives consumerism. The emotional stammering that precludes durable relations, the indeterminacy of an uncertain future requires a rigorous analysis, the kind of long-term planning that TV series exemplify. They offer meaning and direction in the deluge of random information stifling our cultural landscape.
Conformist, passive and disengaged was the traditional spectator — proactive, inquiring and interventionist is the new spectator. Television series audiences do not want to be merely entertained, they want to be involved. TV came of age when it stopped being a disseminator of news and culture and started producing its own culture, very much like cinema. From a grey box emanating a feeble light swallowing any possible meaning, TV became a public arena where society’s subconscious can not only be screened and interpreted but perhaps, also changed.
Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name, an “open reputation” informally adopted and shared by a desiring multitude of insurgent cinephiles, transmedial terrorists, aesthetic dynamyters and random deviants. Read more at the Celluloid Liberation Front blog.